PALM COAST, Fla. — They wanted the picture to be just right, to look as close as possible to the one they'd taken together 50 years ago, back when their memories hadn't yet been clouded by the images of war.
So Saturday morning, on the sun-drenched Atlantic shore of Cinnamon Beach on Florida's northeast coast, four U.S. Marine veterans gathered around a yellow longboard turned upright, trying to re-create a moment from five decades earlier.
Bob Falk, 71, wearing a mirror-image blue-and-white striped shirt, leaned against the longboard's left side, resting his spare hand on his hip.
Dennis Puleo, 69, removed his shoes, revealing the feet scarred by shrapnel, and pulled off his shirt, flanking the longboard on the right, mugging a wide smile for the camera with his arms extended.
Tom Hanks (not that one), 69, stepped in front of the board and took in a long, deep breath, flexing his still-thick upper chest and sucking in his now-paunchy belly.
Finally, Bob DeVenezia, 70, crouched down in front of Hanks, resting his elbows on his knobby knees, feeling Hanks' hands placed on his back.
The picture couldn't be a perfect copy. They had gray hair and wrinkled skin and undefined stomachs now. But it didn't matter.
For the first time in five decades, they were together, trying to get it right.
DeVenezia sat at the kitchen table in his East Naples condominium last week, trying to explain why it'd been 50 years since he'd been in the same room as three of his closest Marine Corps friends. He became quiet for a second, searching for the right words.
"We just broke up," DeVenezia said. "Life is funny like that. I didn't keep in touch with any of them. There was something about the Vietnam War and the negativity we kept hearing."
In 1966, the four U.S. Marines were stationed together in Camp Pendleton, outside San Diego. The Vietnam War was ramping up, and together, they were part of a weapons platoon — three machine gunners and one anti-tank man — getting ready to ship off to East Asia.
Over the next two years, they'd train together and deploy together. Once in Vietnam, they'd separate, enduring many of the same horrendous conditions, if not the same action. Two of them would earn Purple Hearts. Each would experience the unexplainable fear of war.
"We had the tools. We had the training," DeVenezia said. "But nothing trains you for your first combat. Nothing. Zero."
And then, once their tours were over, each lasting no more than 13 months, they went their own ways.
They would all build successful careers — DeVenezia in construction in New Jersey; Falk in retail management in Florida; Hanks in investment banking in Atlanta; Puleo in home security, some in the Northeast and some in Florida. They would all marry — a couple of them twice — and raise six children among them.
For a long time, they didn't plan to reunite. Their lives had diverged so dramatically, and the public's resentment of the war soured them on the potential camaraderie.
"I was too wrapped up in having a good time at first. Then I got married and had a kid," Falk said. "Now that I've retired, I've had a lot more time to think back on it."
About five years ago, Falk stumbled across an online memorial that Hanks created for a fallen comrade they all knew. That started a chain of events that put the four back in touch.
For a while, the four would reunite in fits and starts, a few gathering at a time, but never all at once.
Then, when Hanks was flipping through an old photo album, he spotted a picture of the four together on a beach as young Marines. It had been nearly 50 years since the photograph was taken.
He got an idea.
Nobody can remember the precise date when the picture was taken. Sometime in May 1966. Probably early in the month.
What they can agree on is that the snapshot captured a memorable time for the young men ranging from age 19 to 21.
They were fresh out of eight will-busting weeks of basic training in Parris Island, now stationed in San Diego's Camp Pendleton, brothers in the weapons platoon of Bravo Company. How did they, of all the Marines in Pendleton, get together?
"Nobody knows," DeVenezia said. "We were all on the same boat, we were all on the same weapons platoon, we all knew we were going to be cannon fodder, bodies for Vietnam. And you just hook up."
During the week, they would prepare for the war an ocean away, making 20-mile marches through the nearby mountains, sleeping in freshly dug holes overnight.
But on those blissful weekends, they were free men, full of energy and passion, some with a bullheaded streak typical of some young Marines.
"We cemented a relationship then, and I can't say it was all fun and games," Hanks said.
Sometimes, on their more tame adventures, they'd go to the San Diego Zoo. Sometimes, they'd bar hop, where the Navy boys were always up for a good scrap. Other times, they'd trek down to Tijuana, where surely nothing good happened.
One day, they went to the beach in Oceanside, a short jaunt from Camp Pendleton. Each donned short swimming trunks. Three paraded around shirtless, Falk in a white-and-blue striped shirt. All wore short buzz cuts.
Hanks usually carried a camera with him. Maybe a Kodak, he says now. Regardless, somebody snapped photos that day. One of Hanks sitting on Falk's shoulders. One of Puleo laid out on a surfboard, doing his best Jayne Mansfield impression, as Falk and another Marine held up the board.
Eventually, the quartet gathered for a group photo. They snagged a longboard from a surfer, stood it up and gathered in front of it.
"It's a really funny picture," DeVenezia said, "but one with a lot of heart behind it."
From the start, DeVenezia and Falk and Hanks were committed to the reunion in St. Augustine, Fla., a central location for the group (Falk lives north of St. Petersburg, Hanks outside of Atlanta).
It took a little prodding to get Puleo to make the two-hour drive from his Orlando home.
"The truth of the fact is, I didn't want to come," Puleo said. "I could have said 'no' 12 times."
But as they settled into conversation Saturday on the patio of a high-rise condo facing the Atlantic, they found a familiar rhythm.
Hanks busted DeVenezia's chops and whined about getting the smallest bed in the condo. Falk explained how he went to six different stores to find the perfect striped shirt for the photograph, finally spotting one on a table at Bealls. Puleo waxed poetic about new hearing aides with Bluetooth technology, offering advice about how to get them from the VA.
As the noon hour approached, they took the longboard — borrowed from a stranger in St. Augustine, Scott Miller, who'd overheard their story in a surf shop the day before — and ambled down to the beach for the photograph. Each played their part, contorting their bodies and faces as best they could, trying to recapture that long-ago moment.
They got their photo.
"Mission accomplished," Falk said as he walked back from the beach.
With the pictures snapped, they donned matching yellow polo shirts that Falk had made for the reunion and carpooled to lunch at a fish shack.
The ribbing continued. So did the tall tales. They went around the table and tried telling their life stories in three minutes or less. Puleo admitted he was glad he'd come. Hanks called it "one of the best days of my life."
Eventually, the food came. Puleo offered to say grace, and together, they bowed their heads.
It was never far from their minds that they were lucky to be here, that countless others never made it back. Sure, Puleo had once gotten his last rites after taking a piece of shrapnel that pierced through his foot, calf and thigh. And yes, DeVenezia took a bullet to the left shoulder.
But they had survived, and more than that, they had lived.
"We all know," Puleo said, "that we've been given a gift of 50 years."
Follow Jacob Carpenter on Twitter: @NDN_JCarpenter
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